Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley / *****

frankenstein-cover-luis-pradoIt’s hard to review a book like Frankenstein – what do you say that hasn’t been said before? Here’s a book that revolutionized two separate genres – horror and science-fiction – while telling a great story, a book whose origins are almost as intriguing as the book itself, a book whose cultural impact is immeasurable. And more than anything, it remains a fascinating, gripping read, whether you’re re-reading it or coming into it for the first time.

It’s also a book that’s easy to misremember, thanks to a series of (generally fun) films that bore little resemblance to Shelley’s original text. No hunchbacked assistants; no bolts protruding from the neck; no dumb, half-verbal creatures; no angry mobs. And while there is a mad scientist, it’s far from the lab coat-clad madman of James Whale’s films; instead, it’s a young, arrogant man, whose desire for knowledge and science blinds him to his own ambition, hubris, and responsibilities.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about re-discovering Frankenstein is remembering that the book doesn’t easily divide its sympathies between Victor and the nameless creation. In a simpler world, it’s the story of a young man whose hubris unleashes a monster that threatens his life, but Shelley doesn’t let us off that easily. Victor is arrogant, obnoxious, self-centered, and cruelly dismissive of his creation – there’s little way to not think of him as an absentee father, abandoning his child at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, the monster is intensely sympathetic, yes, but also vicious and murderous, and capable of every bit of destruction that Victor worries about. The book doesn’t give you a traditional hero to root for; yes, Victor’s narration undeniably casts himself as the hero, but Shelley crafts her tale in such a way that it’s impossible to read the book and not hear the creature’s pleas clearly.

That all of this came from a 16-year-old girl is remarkable; that it became the best work from a competition between great writers even more so. But as you read the novel, it’s clear that Shelley’s age and her company played no small part in the creation of this fascinating book; there’s little denying, in my opinion, that Victor bears more than a passing resemblance to the arrogant, self-satisfied, preening Percy Shelley, nor that her concerns were shaped by the Romantic world around her and the lives of her parents.

The simple fact is, Frankenstein is, and remains, a staple of literature for all kinds of reasons: its rich themes, its window into a moment of time, its marriage of the Romantic and Gothic movements, its allegorical implications, its literary impact. But more than any of that, it remains a staple because it really is that good. Nearly 200 years after it was first written, it still retains its power to unsettle, to inspire, and to provoke discussions. The questions it asks – about life, about science, about knowledge, about responsibility – are no less important or relevant now than they were when the book was written. (Indeed, as we move closer to artificial intelligences and science continues to progress into gene therapies and cloning, you could easily argue that they’re even more so today.) And if that’s not enough, there’s the rich, amazing story of a “modern Prometheus” who steals knowledge from the gods and creates a new life, only to suffer for it – but, perhaps, not as much as the life he created. And even after 200 years, that story has lost none of its impact.

Amazon

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Arrival (2016) / *****

cp8v8n0vmaadzn6-jpg-largeAt the heart of so much science-fiction, fantasy, and horror is the question of whether there is anything other than humanity out there in the universe (or on Earth, or in other realms, or under our beds). It would be impossible to sit here and count every work of fiction that revolved around our first encounter with an alien life form…and yet, what so many of the works have in common is the difficulty we have of imagining something truly alien. It’s a limitation of our species; after all, if we’re filming it, it probably has to look something like us (it’s the Star Trek approach to much of alien life), and we can only create things that we can understand…you see the problem.

But Denis Villeneuve’s astonishing Arrival proves that it can be done, telling the story of a “First Contact” with something utterly incomprehensible. How do we communicate with a being that may not even be using words? How do we connect when our languages don’t even share a basic foundation of sounds and meanings? What if our math is utterly separate from theirs? That’s where Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (working from a story by author Ted Chiang) place our protagonists, a linguist (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) who have been recruited by an Army colonel (Forest Whittaker) desperate to set up lines of communication before the world populace loses its mind in panic and fear.

That’s a heady premise, and it would be easy for Arrival to find a cheat or a workaround. But it doesn’t. Instead, the film commits to its idea, letting its characters work slowly and thoughtfully, solving the problems through their intellects and cooperation. It’s a film that celebrates intelligence, and that it does so calmly, carefully, and richly – that alone would be enough to make it an essential experience.

But really, that’s only half of the story of Arrival, which opens with Amy Adams’ linguist talking to her child, who we see born, grow, mature…and die, leaving behind a devastated Adams to pick up the pieces, all before the film really gets going or brings the alien arrival on stage. And with that opening, Arrival also becomes a film about grief, growth, and healing, an emotional core it never neglects. Instead, carefully, the film begins to tie those two halves together, doing so in such a way that the ultimate connection truly blindsided me, leaving me quietly devastated and moved. (It also makes it a film that can be difficult to write about; much of the joy of this film comes from watching it make progress and develop, to the point where I really think you should go in not knowing much more of the plot than I’ve given here.)

That, as much as anything, is what truly sets Arrival apart. Make no mistake: this is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, one that truly creates something utterly alien, uses its visuals to immerse us in something wholly new and unsettling, and paces itself perfectly, letting the intelligence of the characters set the pace. And yes, the story is gripping, showing just how much work the screenwriter, Villeneuve, and Chiang must have done before bringing this to the screen. But it’s that emotional core that truly makes Arrival special, revealing a sense of optimism, hope, and healing that can be hard to find in films anymore, to say nothing of the world at large. That it manages to convey that message while also telling a gripping, thought-provoking story that manages to both thrill and intrigue (and somehow fits in both linguistic theory and action sequences)…well, it’s an incredible achievement, and easily one of the best films of the year.

IMDb

The Fell Hound of Adversity, by Parker T. Geissel / ***

514mc52eclI’m on the record as loving books that blur together genres; there’s something invigorating and exciting about reading a book that doesn’t quite fit into any known categories, and whose outcome seems far more in question than your typical read. But at the same time, I’m the first to admit that defying genre boundaries is a high risk maneuver. Even setting aside the question of readers (many of whom prefer their books easy to categorize), the bigger problem is that such blurred lines require a high amount of skill to pull off correctly – a confidence and grace that many authors can’t quite pull off.

Which brings to to Parker T. Geissel’s original, ambitious The Fell Hound of Adversity. Part pulp fiction throwback, part supernatural tale, part parable, part romance story, Geissel writes his book like an author who wants to let his world develop in whatever way he pleases. And while that can be exciting at times, the ultimate result is that the book feels less wild and imaginative and more overstuffed, with plotlines and characters that feel underdeveloped and unexplored, and a storyline that feels incomplete and frustrating at times.

Geissel has created a great world to play around in, though, plunging readers into the city of Adversity, where IRS agents from the Capital have arrived in an effort to crack down on the corruption that’s been plaguing the city. But once they arrive, they find their efforts continually thwarted by a series of brutal murders, anarchists and revolutionaries, and a stonewalling by local officials. And into that mix we throw our protagonist Rudimental Quince, a line cook who gets himself involved in all of this against his better judgment.

If “Rudimental Quince” and “Adversity” seem a bit too precious as names, you might want to brace yourself for the slew of affected names in The Fell Hound of Adversity, which includes characters like Rudi’s brother Lenient Quince, Blazing Buck Cortez, Colonel Dashenka Ivanaovna Stavrogin, Killer Hrapp, Injal Skube, Chairman Tinpot, Mayhew Cue, and more. If you’re into the book, you may enjoy the colorful names, which plays into Geissel’s colorful, larger than life world; for me, the names felt like an affectation, a dose of weirdness and color for its own sake that distracted from the book rather than helping to build the world or tell the tale.

That tale can be a fun one, but it’s also massively overstuffed with twists, reveals, and secrets, many of which Geissel doesn’t feel the need to explain. Which, again, can be fun at time, but here feels like he’s either telling the story badly or just being coy to draw us in. And here’s the thing about noir tales like this: you can play fast and loose with specifics, but backstories and characters matter. (The choice, for instance, to put a critical incident from the book only as an appendix after it ends is a bewilderingly bad one, and it leaves the reader confused and annoyed for much of the book – only to be more annoyed when you get the answers long after they quit mattering and you quit caring.)  And Geissel ultimately plays too fast and loose with some of his main principals, letting his labyrinthine plot take the foreground and hoping it’s enough to keep us going.

And for a while, it is. Geissel has a lot of plates he’s spinning here, and he keeps them all going for a lot longer than you might think, as his story of corruption starts spreading into realms of supernatural horror, romance, espionage, and political maneuvering. But at a certain point, Geissel overcommits himself, and plot becomes so overly complicated – and the characters not involving enough – that I got frustrated with the whole thing.

For all of that, The Fell Hound of Adversity isn’t wholly bad. Geissel’s world is compelling, and he’s got the ambition and imagination to write something spectacular in him at some point. And while I don’t think this book entirely works, and that it ultimately collapses under its own weight, I feel like there’s some promise in here – a lot of talented sections, some strong ideas, and a refusal to be hemmed in by genres and boundaries. And if his reach exceeds his grasp, well, I’d rather read something overly ambitious that doesn’t quite work than read another bland, forgettable best seller any day.

Amazon

Blade Runner / Escape from New York

It’s not as though the Full Moon Cineplex – a locally run new theater that specializes in double features of classic programming – could have known how appropriate their timing on their dystopian science-fiction was going to be when they scheduled it. But after a traumatizing election and an aftermath that only looked worse, it seemed appropriate to plunge into a pair of futuristic hopeless worlds to cap off the week. 

blade_runner_xlgMind you, describing Ridley Scott’s incredible Blade Runner as a dystopia doesn’t entirely cover that film’s greatness, but it’s a start. It’s hard to look at Blade Runner in terms of how groundbreaking it was at the time, or to see it as the influential, seminal work of style that it’s become. And, if I’m being honest, it’s a film that I’ve only slowly come to appreciate over the years, thanks in no small part to getting the chance to see it on the big screen and lose myself in its rich world building and astonishing style. (Really, I think seeing the film for the first time on a small TV via a grainy VHS was part of the reason I disliked it for so long; such a viewing robs the film of so much of its power and impact.) But watching Scott’s film projected onto a big screen (in the “Final Cut” version) gives you a chance to be awed by what the film accomplishes, creating a cyberpunk future before that word existed, laying the groundwork for countless works (both written and cinematic) to come, all while investing us in a profound, powerful story that uses its noir framework to probe deeper questions about existence and meaning.

At its core (and maybe this is just fresh in my mind because I’m currently teaching this book), Blade Runner owes perhaps more of a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than it does to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; here, after all, is a film about artificial life that has been created, but is viewed as monstrous by the world around it. More than that, it is about that artificial life seeking answers from the creator that made it – and, perhaps, cursed it. And it somehow engages with all of this, letting the subtext come through clearly, while plunging us into a futuristic world that’s haunting and eerily plausible in many ways. I have some issues – I still get frustrated with the way that Scott’s final cut removes any doubt about the “Is Deckard a replicant question?”; beyond that, the way that the plot sometimes recedes entirely from view, forcing us to engage with the subtext or lose interest, isn’t ideal for a propulsive piece of storytelling. But there’s no denying the richness of the film’s script, or the incredible world that Scott has created – and to see it on the big screen is to lose yourself in a film that still feels like little else that’s ever been done. Rating: *****

escape-from-new-yorkMeanwhile, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is a pretty typical Carpenter movie: stylish, pulpy, and fun, sure, but also paper-thin, and even with its great hook, you can’t help but feel like Carpenter could have done so much more with it. (This is really the case for so many Carpenter films, isn’t it? I mean, apart from The Thing.)

But, man, what a great hook. New York has been turned into a giant prison, and the President has crashed there; our antihero, Snake Plissken, has been sent there to infiltrate the city, get the President, and get out. What you get is part heist film, part Warriors-style gang piece, and, generally, something that’s pretty fun. Carpenter populates his world with gloriously over-the-top characters and character actors who make the most of their presence. It’s hard, after all, to truly hate a movie with Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance, and Kurt Russell in “bad-ass” mode. Somehow, though, they’re all overshadowed by Frank Doubleday’s gloriously weird and bizarre performance as the Duke’s right hand man, Romero.

The plot? Well, it leaves a bit to be desired. At times, Escape from New York feels like a short film stretched to feature length, and that can be frustrating; there’s a sense of that you can feel Carpenter’s low budget throughout, and that there’s a richer, more detailed story that could have been told. Sure, Carpenter turns New York into a hellscape (although you could argue that he wasn’t changing that much, given the timeframe during which he made the movie), but for all the talk about the various factions at play and the huge gangs wandering, you can’t help but feel like it’s a missed opportunity that we see precisely one group and a couple of stragglers. We get a small piece of this, and Carpenter leaves us wanting more, which can be frustrating.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to enjoy Escape from New York as a fun piece of pulp. Snake is a great antihero, the environment is a blast, and the supporting characters are never not entertaining. It’s far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable in that way that Carpenter usually manages, turning a simple premise into something engaging, shadowy, and stylish. You just can’t help but wish that there was a bit more meat to it than what we get. Rating: *** ½

IMDb: Blade Runner | Escape from New York

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller / *****

41gu1e0i18lPost-apocalypse stories have come in and out of fashion over the years, but it’s hard to think of a more popular one that’s gained as much traction as The Walking Dead. (I know this seems like a tangent, but bear with me.) And with my love of horror, people always get a bit surprised when I told them that I quit The Walking Dead about two seasons in, and never regretted it for a moment. The reason, though, is simple: I realized early on that, as was evidenced in both Kirkman’s source material and the TV series, the series was little more than “misery porn,” devoted to breaking its characters and rubbing our faces in the worst of humanity. And look – I’m a horror junkie. I’ve seen some twisted films, met some insane villains. But the thing about horror novels and films is that they’re finite; they tell a story, and then they end. Meanwhile, I realized that The Walking Dead was intended to be unending, which meant that it would just be a constant succession of horrors, all constantly trying to outdo the last, leaving the viewer in an arms race of misery and horror. And honestly, that’s the last thing I need in my life.

So what, you’re asking, does any of that have to do with The Dog Stars?

Like The Walking DeadThe Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic story, although one without zombies. No, this is closer to Stephen King’s The Stand, where a disease has wiped out much of the population of the planet. And as you’d imagine, survival has become difficult. Luckily, Heller’s protagonist – a pilot named Hig – has teamed up with a survivalist named Bingley, the sort of person who spent his entire life planning for just something like this, and knows exactly what he needs to do. Bingley is the sort of person who would thrive in Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse: he’s careful, thoughtful, proactive, shoots first and asks questions later. He’s armed to the teeth, self-sufficient, and trusts no one but Hig – and even that is only because the two men can help each other.

But here’s what separates The Dog Stars from The Walking Dead, and why I loved it so much: this isn’t Bingley’s story. Instead, it’s Hig’s…and Hig doesn’t want to live in the same world that Bingley does. I don’t mean that he’s suicidal, although you could forgive him for being so; it won’t take long for you to realize how much Hig lost when the world fell apart, and to say that he doesn’t exactly love Bingley is an understatement. (He does have his dog, though, and it’s not hard to see his dog as the band-aid that he’s using to cope with things – something Hig himself admits as well.)

No, what I mean is that Hig fundamentally can’t – and doesn’t want to – be Bingley. He’s an optimist at heart, someone who wants to help people, who hopes that Bingley’s armaments and defenses are for naught, that you can trust the people you meet. That’s not to say that Hig is an idiot or naive. He’s not, and Heller makes that distinction clear quickly. But he’s not a bleak survivalist, either; he wants to give the world a chance, to do more than just survive and stay alive – he wants to find something more to live for than just living for its own sake.

And if that was all The Dog Stars was – the conflict between Bingley and Hig to see which point of view was right – that, in of itself, could be fascinating. But it doesn’t take long for us to begin to see that Heller has more on his mind, as Hig shows himself capable of ruthless behavior, and Bingley becomes more than just a violent boor. And that takes Heller’s world up a notch, as we embrace both the complexity of their new lives and the nuances of their character…and just when we have a handle on that, a lot of things change, and the book evolves into something else again.

I don’t love the way The Dog Stars is written – the conceit is that Hig suffered from a massive fever that damaged his brain a little, and his writing can be a little unfocused as a result – and for a bit, I wasn’t keen on continuing. But as I went, and got more used to Hig’s voice, I started warming to the book, which may end up being the warmest, most hopeful apocalypse book I’ve read in some time. Make no mistake: The Dog Stars never gets absurdly cheery or strains credulity, but it also tries to find a place for hope, human connections, and kindness, even in the face of massive destruction. And it’s hard not to love a book that does that, especially when so much fiction defaults nowadays to bleakness and grim outcomes. (Again, I don’t mind it in some books; what I mind is the ubiquity of it.) More than that, though, The Dog Stars works because it lets its characters live and breathe, defying easy categorization and summary. It’s not a book that gives us easy heroes or villains; sure, some of us (particularly in these politicized times) might be closer to the hopefulness and generosity of Hig, while others are the stern, safe Bingley…but maybe there’s something necessary in each of us. And that’s a nice message to find in a book, even before it creates a rich world, interesting characters, and tells a great story.

I can’t recommend this one enough; yes, you may think you’re tired of post-apocalyptic tales, but maybe that’s because you haven’t read one that looks at the apocalypse as less of an ending, and more of a chance for a second start.

Amazon

 

“What Comes Next?”

One of the big reasons I liked moving to a WordPress blog instead of my own website is that I feel less sense of expectations here. I pretty much declared, from the outset, that I’d be using this for book and movie reviews, and not really anything else. And that works for me. I’m a generally private person, in a lot of ways. Part of that is just my personality – I’ve never enjoyed opening up about things, never enjoyed speaking my mind more than I had to. I’m all about the indirect truth, if we’re being honest, or letting my actions speak for me instead of my words – which, honestly, is ironic, given my love of the written word and the fact that I generally think I express myself well in my writing. And part of that privacy comes back to life as a teacher; I think, in many ways, teaching is a performance, and any performer has to draw a line between their public self and their private self, and I long ago realized that with a name like mine, the Internet version of that self would be pretty much public to anyone who wanted to find it.

All of which is to say that I don’t feel the need to write personal blogs any more. And yet, sometimes the act of writing is therapeutic, and jesus, am I in need of some therapy these days. So I’m going to write here about myself, and the election, and probably my emotional state these days. And it’s going to be long, and it’s going to be about politics, and I may swear a bit. So, you know, if none of that interests you, that’s cool – I don’t blame you. I’ve got a book review I need to write for Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and it’ll be up when I get to feeling more into it, and this blog will be back to normal traffic.

But for now, if you’re with me, let me tell you some things.

I’ve suffered from depression for…gosh, about 20 years now. At least, that’s when I went on medication for it. (Paxil, if you’re interested.) This isn’t something I entirely keep secret; I mean, I don’t exactly advertise (and I may be shooting myself in the foot by posting this, in terms of pre-existing conditions if I ever need new insurance), but I’ve told people if we’ve been on the subject of depression. I think it’s good for people to know that other people can survive it, especially teenagers; I’ve told this to students over the years who’ve been going through hard times and considering whether to get therapy and/or medication.

But I mainly start this story with this admission to help you understand my mental state. No, depression isn’t like being “sad”. It doesn’t really always follow your life; sometimes, you just get into a dark place, and you don’t even know why, and it’s infuriating. And yet, there’s also no denying that your depression is influenced by your life around you. My depression has been undeniably “better” since marrying my incredible wife and having my two children. That doesn’t mean it’s cured; as Maria would no doubt tell you, I still have my dark times, my frustration outbursts, my times when everything sucks and I have no idea why. But it helps having a wonderful family, a wife who spoils me, and my two insane and wondrous children.

That also means, though, that when life is bad, your depression is harder to fight off. It got real bad for me a couple of jobs back, when I was basically run out of a school I really liked because I (and a few other teachers) dared to sponsor a gay student organization in the South. (It gets hard to go to work when a lot of the staff hates you, and you know it, so you hide from your few friends so they don’t get tainted by their association with you.) It got bad at my last job, when I was starting to question whether teaching was worth continuing with, when I felt like the profession I loved was turning into a test proctoring job with kids who didn’t care.

And man, has my depression had a field day with this election.

It’s not the endless campaigning, mind you; that’s exhausting and irritating, but not depressing. No, what made this campaign so depressing was the noxious, hateful, vicious rhetoric unleashed by the Trump campaign.

(Let me pause here to explain things: Fuck no, I didn’t vote for that misogynistic, sexist, racist, xenophobic, fascist orange paraquat. I even kinda liked Hillary Clinton; she wasn’t a perfect candidate by any means, but she wasn’t the nightmare made flesh that she was portrayed as, and she was sure as shit going to be better for the country than the guy who watched A Face in the Crowd and said, “yeah, that seems like the right ticket.”

And I know some Trump voters, and they’ll tell me that they’re not racists/xenophobes/sexists/etc. And they’re not. But you know what? They also gave Trump’s racism/xenophobia/sexism/etc. their tacit support. They would tell you, “sure, he says awful things about Muslims/gays/hispanics/women, but I’m sure someone will tone him down.” And they could say that, because when you’re white and straight, you’re playing through the world on easy mode, and none of that shit applies to you. So if it does all happen, well, sucks for them, but at least you don’t have to worry about it. So no, you may not be racist, you may not hate women, you may not despise immigrants or support pumping electricity through gay teenagers until they convert.

But you voted for a man who does. Own it.)

Worse than Trump’s rhetoric, though, was the reaction. They say that at the heart of every cynic – which I undeniably am – beats the heart of a wounded optimist. And that’s true. Because I like to think that the world is getting better, and over the past decade, it has been improving in so many ways. It’s not perfect, but we were making progress. And every time I would see people screaming “Trump will deport you, wetbacks!”, hurling abuse at women in burqas, creating mock lynchings, or the like, it made me realize that maybe we’re not as good as we thought. And not only is that fucking disheartening, it makes it real hard to look at your children and think that they’ll be safe.

And so, let me be honest: my depression has been in high gear for about the last month or two. It has fed off of the noxiousness, the awfulness I’ve seen on the news, the alt-right trolls, the spewing of vitriol, the tacit “looking the other way” that so many have done. And you can say, well, Josh, none of that affects you – turn it off. And I know I should…but I can’t. I feel compelled to know what’s going on, and I can’t look away, and I feel like someone needs to see it, to acknowledge what others are going through. Because, look, I’m pretty spoiled as a straight white male…but as a teacher, let me be all sappy, and tell you that I feel some love for pretty much every kid who’s ever come through my classroom, and I have a lot of kids because of that, and they’re of every orientation, every ethnicity, and I’m scared for them.

But, I thought, the election will be over soon, and he’ll lose, and we can go back to ignoring him like sane people do to Alex Jones, and Michael Savage, and the like.

And then came Tuesday night.

In hindsight, we should have seen it coming, of course. I’m not even talking about the polls at this point; I’m just talking about what a fucking nightmare 2016 has been. We joked earlier in the year that maybe Bowie and Prince didn’t die, and instead just went back to their home planets; now, I’m wondering if they didn’t just get out while the getting was good, and couldn’t warn us before they left.

Whatever the case, you could feel the shock set in across the internet, and in our house. It wasn’t just that a Republican won, as so many have argued online. I remember George W. winning in 2004, and it wasn’t this feeling. I was disappointed, but not like this. No, it was because we thought, as a country, that we were better than this. That we would look at a man who played off of fears, off of our worst instincts, who offered no policies, only insults, and that we would take the high road.

But we were wrong, apparently. And as Trump’s win became clearer, you could see the glee on the internet. Jewish writers started getting flooded with anti-semitic tweets and insults. Nazi symbols got sprayed on walls. And if you haven’t seen stories about some of the emboldened racists acting out, you’re not fucking looking. You’re not seeing the woman in a hijab who talked about how a truck pulled up to her and the man inside told her that he can’t wait until Trump says it’s okay to rape them and then deport them back to wherever they came from. You’re not hearing the guys who gleefully walk into a club and say “Pussy grabbing is okay now!” You’re not seeing women who have been sexually assaulted watch a man who assaulted women be given the benefit of the doubt and rewarded for it while a woman is blamed for her husband’s infidelities. You’re not seeing the gay men give pictures of where they’ve had things thrown at them in the street and say “You’re next, faggots! Trump’s coming for you soon.”

You’re not hearing my children come home and talk about how one of their classmates is walking around the playground with a stick and playing “hit the Mexicans” and yelling “send them back.”

You’re not hearing the students in my senior English class make uncertain jokes about how one of their classmates, an immigrant, might not be able to finish the year if she gets deported.

Fucking funny, right? What a grand fucking joke this all is.

So, yeah. I’ve been really, really depressed over the past few days. It’s not that we lost; it’s that the vileness, the hatred that I saw won. And that it feels emboldened, and that it’s been given the okay to do what it wants. And I don’t need to hear that not every Trump supporter is like that. I don’t give a shit. The fact is, if you voted for him, you turned a blind eye to this. And I know we’re supposed to say that politics shouldn’t separate friendships, and they don’t – my wife and I have cancelled each other out every year in elections until this year. But kindness and respect for human beings are a dealbreaker, and if you can’t see what you’re unleashing, then take a fucking look around.

So. Depression.

But I can’t live this way – not this depressed. And one “advantage” of teaching is that you have to put on a good front – you can’t wear your depression, your bad day, in front of your students. (Though I did hear one of my seniors commenting yesterday that “man, all my teachers are really down today.”) And so I’ve been trying to be in a good mood, trying to be my usual energetic, overeager self that I am in the classroom. And it’s helped.

But more than that, I keep coming back to a tweet I saw Tuesday night from Justin McElroy. He said this: “I’m gonna wake up tomorrow and keep trying to be good and so are you and no one gets to vote on that.”

And I’m trying to live that right now. I’m trying to be a force for good for my students, and remind them that not everyone is Trump.I’m trying to actually teach my students, while I’m teaching literature, about humanity and decency and respect. I’m trying to remind them that respect and kindness matter, and that everyone deserves it, and that they sometimes need to understand what it’s like to walk around in someone else’s shoes and see the world as they see it. I’m trying to basically be a good person, and stand up for people, and teach my children how to be good to others, and to be kind, and to realize that everyone is a fucking human being, no matter what  – no matter who they love, where they’re from, or what they look like. And in general, I’m trying not to give up hope on this world.

My friend Nancy on Facebook said she’s basically running her Facebook now like “an Underground Railroad of love,” and I’m all about this idea. So go be a good person for a while. Reach out to someone in need. Find a way to compliment someone you disagree with. Remind yourself that we’re all in this together. And when people tell you that they’re going through hard times, that they’re not being treated fairly…maybe listen to them a little, okay?

At the very end of the movie Se7en, Morgan Freeman says this: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

I’m about with him right now. I’m hoping to agree with Hemingway along the way, but for now, I’m all about the fact that I refuse to give in to the tidal wave of hatred and misogyny I see, and to try to keep my hopes up. It’s hard, but I’m going to try.

Wish me luck.

The Handmaiden / *****

the-handmaiden-posterOver the past decade or so, I’ve become more and more of a fan of Korean cinema, which seems to approach genre boundaries as suggestions at best, and more commonly, as outdated and pointless. Whether you’re following the insane twists and turns of Save the Green Planet!, in awe of the astonishing kinetic energy of The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, spending your time torn between laughter and horror at Memories of Murder, gleefully watching as Snowpiercer swings from black comedy to political allegory to horrific violence, or digging through the devious (and deviant) world of Oldboy, there’s something incredible about the way that Korean filmmakers defy easy categorization. And for me – as for many – my gateway into the country’s cinema came in the films of Chan-Wook Park, who helmed Oldboy and the rest of the so-called “vengeance” trilogy. Sure, Oldboy was the breakthrough, but as I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, I found myself realizing that what Park was turning out was unlike much else I had ever seen, and in awe of the surprises they could pull off. And so, when I started to hear the praise and reaction The Handmaiden was getting, I got even more excited than usual for a new Park film.

What was more unusual, though, was the constant references to how “feminist” The Handmaiden was. Park is a lot of things – a master of visual style, a thrilling storyteller, a masterful director – but you’d be hard pressed to find the feminism of many of his films. And yet, when you see his most recent film – the underrated Stoker, his English-language debut – you can see a man who’s starting to empathize more with his female characters, to understand the sexual dimensions (and danger) to the twisted worlds he created. And so, I was intrigued, but not quite sold.

And yet, it all turns out to be true – The Handmaiden is a pointedly, assuredly feminist film. It’s also a period piece set in 1930’s Korea; it’s also a twisty, convoluted crime story. It’s also a glorious black comedy, and a tale full of violence and menace. Oh, and it’s a lesbian love story, with some quite explicit sex scenes that come along the way. In other words, it’s about what you’d expect from Park – and that means, in addition to all of that wildness, it’s also incredibly stylish, darkly funny, wonderfully performed, oozing with atmosphere, and constantly doing what you least expect.

Taken in its simplest sense, The Handmaiden is the story of a young Korean woman who’s hired as the new handmaiden for a Japanese heiress. (Side note: the way the film handles the dual-language issue with subtitles is a simple but effective method that I really appreciated.) Not long after she arrives, the heiress starts being courted by a Japanese count who’s been working with her uncle (who also serves as her caretaker). All of which sounds simple enough – except that, within the first five minutes, the film reveals that the handmaiden and the count are actually partners in crime, working together to scam the heiress out of her fortune.

And if you think that sounds complicated, that’s before the handmaiden and the heiress begin to spend all their time together, and maybe start falling for each other…and before the big reveals start crashing their way through the film. Because everything I’ve told you doesn’t even get past the first third of the plot, and doesn’t even begin to touch on the layers of weirdness, depravity, and violence that are lurking in the shadows. But the simple version is: if all you’re looking for is a great twisty crime story, The Handmaiden delivers in spades, with schemes within schemes, double crosses aplenty, and loads of shady people working their cons.

So, yes, The Handmaiden is undeniably a stylish, great thriller. But beyond that, it’s also a wonderfully feminist work, like so many have pointed out. Explaining how would be to give away some of the fun; suffice to say, the movie really gets going when the women fall in love, and once you realize exactly what the things are that they’re rebelling against  – and maybe why our heiress’s aunt committed suicide in that tree outside her window – it’s not hard to love The Handmaiden as a story about men who abuse women and the way they pay for their cruelty. Except, well, even that’s not quite right…but it’s close enough for the purposes of this review, and without digging too deeply into what’s going on plot-wise by the end.

The thing about The Handmaiden is that, essentially, it’s a crime thriller, one with a lesbian love story tucked into it. But summarizing the film that way is to rob it of its many pleasures – its beautiful and lush staging, its great performances, its wonderfully shifting moods, its thoughtful subtext, and its gleeful willingness to shift gears on a dime and take you wherever it feels like going. Is it pulpy, a little trashy, a little excessive? Oh, undeniably. But is it also incredibly fun, wonderfully invigorating, and excitingly unpredictable? Hugely so. And once you factor in the wonderful style and boundary-defying nature of it all, you’ve got a fantastic time in the theater. Just, you know, don’t take your mom to this one.

IMDb